State House candidate runs on former name
TAMPA - Is she Janet Cruz or Janet Rifkin? Or maybe Janet Gonzalez? Janet Cruz is the front-runner in the special election to replace state Rep. Mike Scionti in state House District 58 in heavily Hispanic West Tampa and Town 'N Country. But for the past six years, she has been known as Janet Rifkin. In fact, when Cruz married physician Stephen Rifkin in 2004, she told friends and Tampa Tribune reporters to make sure they called her by her new name. But when she filed her papers for the District 58 race last month, she filed as Janet Cruz.Is that so she'll have a Hispanic ballot name to appeal to the district's Hispanic voters? No, Cruz said. "Everyone still knows me best as Janet Cruz," she said. "This will avoid confusion." "All those years when I walked the streets of West Tampa with Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay and Mike Scionti, when I sat at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop with Tipper Gore, everyone knew me as Janet Cruz." Her legal name now is Janet Cruz Rifkin. And nobody should question her Tampa Hispanic identity, she said -- "I was born a Latina girl in Ybor City. I bleed café con leche." Cruz will face local Democratic Party Chair Pat Kemp and lawyer Gil Sanchez in the Democratic primary Jan. 26. The general election is Feb. 23. Her name is the kind of issue that occasionally confronts female politicians. Cruz was born Janet Gonzalez to a family of three generations of Ybor City cigar workers. She married Ray Cruz in 1973 at 16, then divorced in 1993. She developed a reputation as a volunteer campaign worker, fundraiser and Democratic activist in the Hispanic community. She's also trying to deal with another issue that has drawn criticism from her opponents - she doesn't live in District 58. She lives with Rifkin in his Sunset Park home, and has previously said she would move into the district if elected. But Cruz said Monday that she's moving this week into a Woodlawn Avenue house, renting with a purchase option. "I just want to take that issue off the table," she said. Cruz also said she spent much of her childhood in Seminole Heights, with her father's family, and even had her first job in a department store there. Plus, she noted, "Everyone agrees Mike Scionti did a great job, and he didn't live in the district until he got elected." Sanchez also lives outside the district. He says he has been planning for years to move into it and seek the state House seat, but didn't expect the seat to come open this quickly. Scionti is leaving it to accept an appointment in the Obama administration. Kemp has said she's running in part because neither of the other two Democrats live in the district. She wasn't immediately available for comment for this story. Two Republicans, Hunter Chamberlin and Jackie Rojas-Quinones, seek the GOP nomination on Jan. 26.
Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761.